Montreal

Beyond sandbags: Quebec looks for ways to limit future flood damage

With the help of the army and thousands of sandbags, Quebec has been better prepared for rising waters this spring than it was for the historic floods of 2017. But bigger changes are needed, experts say.

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'There comes a time when you have to take a decision and move to higher ground,' said Alain Robert, who returned to his rented home in Sainte-Marie in the Beauce region Tuesday after the swollen Chaudière River began to recede. (Cathy Senay/CBC)

Standing in the wreckage-strewn yard of the home he's rented for the past six years, Alain Robert has had enough. 

"I'm going up in the mountains," Robert said Tuesday in Sainte-Marie, in Quebec's Beauce region.

"I won't have to deal with this anymore. There comes a time when you have to take a decision and move to higher ground. Forget about the river, and start all over again."

Climate change means floods like those that have devastated parts of Quebec this spring are likely to become increasingly common — and everything from viewing riverfront property as prime real estate to the way bridges are constructed will need to be re-examined.

For a tenant like Robert, it's easy enough to walk away.

For people whose dreams and life savings are tied up in a home built on a flood plain, leaving home for good is a tougher sell.

Enticement to leave

Quebec Premier François Legault tried to make that decision a little easier earlier this week, when he toured Pointe-Gatineau, a flood-damaged neighbourhood of Gatineau on the Ottawa River across from Canada's capital.

Legault said the province will offer a cumulative total of $100,000 to any home damaged by flooding — effectively putting a lifetime limit on government compensation. Alternatively, the province will offer residents up to $200,000 to give up their homes.

Quebec Premier François Legault said the province will limit the lifetime compensation it will pay for flooded properties to $100,000 — and give homeowners the option of walking away and pocketing up to $200,000. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

While Legault stopped short of saying there would be any mandatory evictions, the increased likelihood of flooding means living by a river will be problematic over the long term, said Pascale Biron, a professor of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University.

"They are flooded, and that's costing a lot of money for all of us, because at the end of the day we compensate as a society," Biron said.

"In addition, it's preventing water from being stored naturally in these areas. So really, encouraging these people to move from these critical areas will be beneficial to the people living downstream."

The idea is to provide "freedom space for rivers" in the form of parks or wetlands, she said. The term is used by geographers to denote an area naturally equipped to absorb flood waters.

The drone footage was captured on April 23, 2019. 0:58

Flooding vs. property taxes

Experts have for years been warning about the potential consequences of building on flood plains. But municipalities have been reluctant to shut down a source of property tax revenue.

Now, though, it appears a shift is underway.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said Tuesday her city and surrounding municipalities are looking at ensuring neighbourhoods are more "resilient" when it comes to flooding.

"We're looking at water parks and doing landscaping in a certain way," she said. "But it's not a one-fit-for-all, let's put it that way. We need to be cautious about that."

Volunteers help Elyse Lagace, right, protect her home in Pointe-Gatineau from flooding. The neighbourhood was hit hard by floods two years ago. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

At the federal level, Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he is willing to fast-track reviews of projects that could help communities in Quebec and elsewhere deal with floods as part of an offer to provinces and cities.

Rethinking the riverside

Daniel Oligny, the head of a consulting firm that helps municipalities with emergency preparedness services, agreed towns and cities were readier this year for potential flooding. Critical questions remain, however.

"We will have to redefine the way we manage the urbanization of our cities and communities," he said.

"We will have to think, what is our relationship with the rivers? Where can I live while seeing the river without being on the river?"

While planning has been better this time, Biron said the government still needs to come up with a clear approach to flooding, overseen by a single ministry.

Public Security Geneviève Guilbault, surrounded by mayors and local MNAs from the Beauce region, toured the flood-stricken town of Sainte-Marie, Que., Tuesday. (CBC)

Right now, the ministries of Public Security, Environment and Municipal Affairs all play a role.

"It's more difficult to have a coherent plan when you are splitting the various tasks in relation to flood preparedness," Biron said.

Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said the Quebec government will explore all options, after the water recedes.

"It's certainly not today that we'll be making those sorts of decisions," she said Tuesday, on a tour of the flood damage in Sainte-Marie.

"But if there are things that can be done, obviously we'll do them," said Guilbault. "It's 2019, and we are concerned about the health and safety of our citizens — and avoiding floods in the first place would be the first step."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Cathy Senay and CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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